Reggie White was one of the greatest defensive players in the history of professional football, and a more interesting man than most of your football greats. Even during White’s days with the USFL’s Memphis Showboats, he was known for his kind heart, his sense of humor, and for his religious devotion: an ordained minister by the time he was 23, White was outwardly devout enough to make Tim Tebow look like Richard Dawkins at a time when many of his peers weren’t.
That outwardness worked to his benefit, and against it. The Minister Of Defense spoke out passionately against a series of church arsons (including one affecting his own parish) during the mid-1990’s, but was just as open and vocal about his unrepentant anti-gay stance. He could do pretty good impressions of Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley and Rodney Dangerfield, but his attempts at ethnic humor in front of the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1998 fell epically, facepalm-ily flat. There was much to love about Reggie White, but he constantly did things to test and frustrate even his biggest fans; that he was just being himself didn’t make it any less maddening. His knack for performing himself off the field made him a natural fit for a crossover attempt in film. His inability to be any other way ensured that his crossover came in the form of Reggie’s Prayer, an unsurprisingly strange, surprisingly watchable and not actually terrible Christian-themed film from 1996.
We open weirdly. A montage cuts between a young boy being forced to rob a convenience store and the limping legs and feet of a tall, dark man.
Our hero, Reggie Knox, is affected by the young boy’s death, via a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a casually psychedelic dream sequence in which ghosts sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at a cemetery. Knox retires from the NFL just short of the Super Bowl he so desperately wants, and “the media” are surprised that instead of playing five more seasons, replacing Rich Kotite as coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, or coaching a scrappy CFL USA franchise, Reggie is quitting to become a history teacher and high school football coach in Portland, Oregon. This being the mid-1990’s, the Portland of Reggie’s Prayeris not at all Portlandia-ish. It’s a different sort of dystopia, at any rate, with today’s food trucks and fixed-gear absolutists swapped out for gang violence and NFL legends doing menial jobs in cameo appearances.
Reggie’s Prayer has a Hall of Fame cast making due with some Pro Bowl-quality writing and production value. Rosie Grier plays Reggie’s pastor, who teaches him that it’s alright to cry. Two-time NBA Entertainment League three-point champion Cylk Cozart plays Reggie’s old friend, who—well, along with God—convinces him that winters in Oregon are more pleasant than winters in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin or the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Bryce Paup, who is perhaps the main reason why Reggie White didn’t get a Super Bowl ring before this film was made, does a cameo as a cop. High school principal Pat Morita wears his hair like an elderly Andrew Bynum, and brings a similarly offbeat approach to his performance. When MC Hammer, Gale Sayers and Luis from “Sesame Street” are billed as low as they are, it's clear that we have something interesting on our hands.
Central High School, it turns out, has won State six years in a row, probably because they have Willie freaking Roaf on their offensive line—to reiterate: there are a lot of NFL cameos, and also Roaf's character is named Willie Haystack—but also because Reggie’s predecessor was an a-hole who only cared about winning.That's not Reggie’s style, and his team succeeds (spoiler alert?) through hard work, dedication, blurring the lines between church and state, and because of the high school’s father-and-son maintenance team.
The head janitor, a walrusian and understated Mike Holmgren,came up with an innovative play called “The Left Coast Special,” which turns out just to be a quarterback option; he tells his boy, played by Brett Favre, that maybe he could’ve been a good quarterback. Many viewers in 1996 might have mistaken Favre for Mare Winningham, but Favre at least sells the father-son dynamic with Holmgren.
Central High School also seems to be adjacent to an abandoned warehouse, where one Mr. Portola reigns the Portland underworld with an iron fist, a creepy henchman, and a toy train set operating out of a briefcase. Portola’s criminal activities are vague, but include planting guns inside students’ backpacks and failing to kill said students. Portola is played, because why not, by Classical favorite Paul Wight, better known as the WWE's The Big Show. Wight adds 7 feet of muscle, low octave-speech and weird gravitas to the bad guy role. The DVD cover brutally photoshops Wight to make him look like a pinheaded dwarf. Wight is, in fact, quite tall.
Reggie’s Prayer revisits the parable of the lost sheep over and over again, to such an extent that the filmmakers use every last part of the animal before the film is through. A toy sheep is placed on the unnamed suicide’s coffin, and in yet another dream sequence, Reggie literally holds a sheep as if he were the Virgin Mary in Michaelangelo’s Pietà. The token Caucasian player on the high school team is named "Wool." Reggie calls him his "white sheep." You get it.
Christian entertainment is burdened, both in perception and often in fact, by its reputation for didactic storytelling, low production value and baffling reliance on Kirk Cameron's star quality. While Reggie’s Prayer is guilty to some extent of all three—Mike Holmgren is not necessarily a worse actor than Cameron, but he's not much better—it’s not really a bad film at all. There’s a good combination of intentional and unintentional humor, and all involved are having a good time—White's family appears in the film, too, more or less as themselves—and want Reggie to succeed in his star turn; there's nothing objectionable about it, and its dedication to earnest uplift is weirdly winning as the film goes on. It's not quite good, but it is surprisingly and decidedly not bad.
In sports, movies and elsewhere, it's generally wise to separate the player with the person, and the artist from the art. There are many aspects of Reggie White’s life that were disappointing in one way or another, but Reggie’s Prayer is not one of them.